Chapter 16
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Dog Years

A life with pets forms the scaffolding of a new memoir by columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson

In The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years , syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson revisits some of the territory she covered in her 2010 memoir, Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming. This time around, her account of marriage, divorce, loss, recovery, work, and making a home are organized around histories of the many dogs she has known.

Inevitably this is a sentimental journey—in this book, Johnson, who has won an American Society of Newspaper Editors award for commentary and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, unashamedly abandons the journalist’s attitude of cool appraisal. The title of the first chapter sets the tone for her canine encomium: “Why Dogs Rule the Earth, Especially This Corner.” Among her dogs’ many excellent qualities, she writes, “They communicate quietly, with their eyes, which is what more humans should do.”

In addition to Johnson’s three husbands—two of whom will be familiar to readers of Enchanted Evening Barbie—we meet the pets who played a part in those relationships and lightened the times in between. Johnson is frank about her loves and losses, of both men and dogs, and quick to blame herself for her shortcomings in the care of both species. She recalls again the frantic and romantic year when she and her first husband Jimmy Johnson, creator of the comic strip Arlo and Janis, got married and started a short-lived weekly newspaper on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Now the story of that paper’s demise has a happy ending with the arrival of Buster the dog.

After Buster disappears too soon, Barney arrives. When the Johnsons part ways, Barney eventually becomes a fixture at the columnist’s hundred-acre home in the Mississippi hill country. It’s here that Johnson’s second husband, Don, will build the bridge to which the book’s title refers. And the first grave in the pet cemetery across the bridge will be for a blessed yellow Labrador retriever named Mabel, whom Johnson credits with teaching her that dogs needn’t live outdoors, even in a state known for its free-roaming “yard dogs.”

There’s a heart-piercing tale of one dog mourning another, and an infuriating story about a man who kills his dog frivolously. There are obscure hill-country characters, the kind Johnson is good at flushing out. But her winsome observations are the real payoff for readers. “We considered our parting a semicolon, not a period,” she writes of her separation from Jimmy Johnson. Working in Atlanta when she longed to be in Mississippi was “like trying to sleep when it begins to rain and you can’t remember if you left the windows down in your car.”

Johnson pauses often along the way in praise of “slow-paced, storytelling, music-loving, delightfully slothful” Mississippi and the country home she calls Fishtrap Hollow, but her pets are the organizing principle of this memoir. And after more than three decades spent writing column-length pieces for newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and the Knoxville News Sentinel, Johnson knows how to work in a compact space. While dogs may pack seven years of living into one human calendar year, Johnson’s trick is to fold years of passionate attention to her surroundings into engagingly succinct chapters.